February 28: Noticing Friendship Patterns
Earlier this month I spoke with parents at a local school about friendship. Parents had lots of thoughts and questions to share, and the Q&A section of the presentation was about as long as the presentation itself. One important topic that we discussed was how to help your child notice patterns in friendships and specifically how to help children notice how they feel when they are with different friends. You can ask your child:
“How do you feel when you’re playing (or hanging out with) that friend?”
“How do you usually feel after you’ve spent time together, once the playdate (or get together) is over?”
“What are some of the things you like best about that friend?”
“What happens when the two of you disagree?”
Overall, we want children to understand that friendships should feel good most of the time. If a friend is consistently unkind, help your child pay attention to how that feels compared with spending time with a friend who is supportive and kind. In particular, we want children to feel empowered to step away from a relationship with someone who consistently says or does hurtful things.
It’s also important to also keep in mind that children are always growing, developing, and changing. If a friend says or does something unkind or distressing one day, we want to help children maintain perspective and remember that everyone sometimes makes a mistake or has an off day.
“This sounds like a hard situation. Has this happened before?”
“You seem pretty upset. That makes sense. What are you thinking you’ll do next?”
“It sounds like you felt embarrassed when your friend did that. Did your friend notice how you were feeling?”
When your child tells you about something upsetting that happened with a friend, provided it’s not a dangerous situation, coach yourself to listen first rather than jumping in to ask questions or provide advice. You can ask your child directly, “Do you want my help or do you just need to vent?” Then be sure to respect your child’s response. Remember to check in with yourself and think about your own feelings and reactions. If needed, step away so you can regulate your own emotions by taking a couple of breaths and reminding yourself:
My child is safe. This is a tough situation and I want to give my child the message that they can do hard things.
It is not my job to solve the problem or to rescue my child.
The most important thing for me to do right now is to listen. I don’t need to take any action right now.
If your child does ask for your input, remember to choose your words carefully when you talk about the other child. Keep in mind that what happened may be a one-off incident, and if you label the other child as ‘rude’ or ‘a jerk’, you may be inadvertently encouraging all-or-nothing thinking implying that the other child is either a ‘good kid’ or a ‘bad kid’. This limits your child’s ability to think flexibly about what happened. In addition, labeling another child in this way may make your child reluctant to share concerns in the future if they worry that you will judge the person as a bad friend.
Finally, if your child is having a hard time with friendships, try to hold in mind that so much of their experience with friends is going to evolve and develop over time. Being patient can be hard, especially when your child is hurting. Be sure to identify and caring partner, friend, or family member with whom you can talk, process, and vent about your own feelings regarding your child’s friendships.